A continent away from drought-stricken California, Chesapeake Bay’s remote Tangier Island is home to some 700 people and an abundance of birds—herons, cormorants, terns, and osprey among them. For now. By the end of the century, Tangier Island may vanish beneath rising waters.
Extreme water scarcity in California is one symptom of the global disaster brought on by fossil fuels. Tangier Island’s impending disappearance is another. Shrinking reservoirs and disappearing islands can occur naturally. Yet atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been in millions of years. Weather patterns are shifting at an unnatural rate. As temperatures rise, so do sea levels.
Climate change is happening everywhere. A recent University of Connecticut study concluded that one out of every six species on Earth may be extinct by the end of the century due to climate change.
“How are the critters doing?” That was the focus of Chesapeake Bay assessments when I worked at the EPA during the Clinton Administration. Home to more than 3,600 plant and animal species, America’s largest estuary suffers from the impact of more than 17 million people within its 64,000-square-mile watershed. While there has been progress in reducing many pollutants, an even greater threat now looms.
Fossil fuel emissions anywhere threaten havoc everywhere. It’s time we add “climateshed” to our environmental lexicon. There are 2,267 watersheds in the United States alone. But Planet Earth is a single climateshed.
Emissions are not distributed equally. Per capita fossil fuel usage in the United States is 185 times higher than places like the impoverished African nation of Mali, where women have an average of 6.9 children. Mali’s citizens and billions like them are afflicted with “carbon starvation.” Their use of fossil fuels is too low to sustain decent lives based on available technology.
What does this have to do with population? Everything. According to the UN medium-fertility projection, world population will increase by 3.5 billion by 2100. The poorest, most rapidly growing nations will make up 100 percent of the global net increase.
As their rising fossil fuel emissions approach even a modest fraction of ours, the impact will be catastrophic. We cannot save the planet by dooming millions to permanent poverty. Instead, we must invest in practical programs so that every woman and every couple can benefit from voluntary contraception and smaller families. Doing so won’t let us off the hook here at home, with our high rates of unplanned pregnancy and carbon emissions. If we care about the future and want to avert mass extinctions and chaos, we must act globally and locally.
Too much water here. Not enough there. We all live on Island Earth in the vastness of space. We can heed the clear and present threat embodied by Tangier’s rising tides and California’s drought. Will we?